“If you don’t like the world,” advises pianist and composer Joelle Khoury, “create one.” Sitting cross-legged on the dimly lit, carpeted stage of the French Institute’s Salle Montaigne auditorium, Khoury gestures furiously as she speaks. She pauses frequently for a joke aside or a shared laugh with collaborators Alexandre Paulikevitch and Chaghig Arzoumanian.
The trio took time out of their rehearsal schedule to sit down with The Daily Star and discuss their upcoming multimedia performance “Palais de Femmes,” a fusion of pre-recorded film and audio overlaid with live music and dance, opening Thursday.
The title was inspired by the Salvation Army-funded Paris institution Le Palais de la Femme, Khoury explains, which offers shelter to women in crisis. After a painter friend visited the institution, Khoury was inspired to create an audiovisual performance exploring the role art played in the lives of such women as Dalida, Marguerite Duras, Billie Holiday, Frida Kahlo, Oum Kalthoum, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, many of whom viewed their creative pursuits as an escape from harsh realities.
“At some point we were really feeling bad,” Khoury recalls, “and we realized the only place you can be that makes you stay alive, the only place we artists can reside, is in our work. So these palaces are the work itself ... It’s this process of sitting with yourself and creating this palace. It does not exist ... These women ... all sort of said the same things sometimes: that they only felt alive inside their work.”
Khoury spent two-and-a-half years putting together a score, composed of texts written in French, English, German, Arabic and Spanish, and dramatized by actresses, as well as music, ambient sounds and original clips from interviews conducted with the women who inspired the work.
“The soundtrack is divided into three parts,” Khoury explains. “The middle part is what we’re calling a quasi-documentary. It’s a dialogue in three languages with the actual voices of some of these women.
“So I’ve edited together, like, a phrase from Virginia Woolf, and then Sylvia Plath answers, and then Marguerite Duras would say something, so you have the real voices of these women talking to each other.”
Khoury says she composed the first and third parts of the performed text, “inspired again by these women and their lives.
“It’s very polyphonic,” she continues. “In the middle they talk to each other, although they never met and were never in the same time, but it makes sense to hear what each of them is saying [in succession].
Audience members are not expected to pick up on every layer and nuance of the performance, she explains, but to tune in to what interests and engages them most.
Khoury was originally intending to pair her audio with live painting, but when her original collaborator pulled out of the project for personal reasons she decided to feature the painter in filmed recordings instead. Khoury turned to filmmaker Arzoumanian and contemporary baladi dancer Paulikevitch to work with her on putting together a multilayered, multidisciplinary performance.
Working from Khoury’s score, Arzoumanian assembled a film sequence using archival footage of the women featured in the audio, photographs of famous statues and artworks, footage of traditional baladi dancers (including one of Paulikevitch’s teachers) and recorded footage of Khoury’s actor and artist friends.
“From the beginning I felt that I had to use archive footage,” she explains. “I needed visuals that are not my work but reference films and things that were already used.”
As the pre-recorded audio and visuals play out on stage, Khoury and Paulikevitch will punctuate the performance with live piano music and dance.
The inclusion of a male dancer in a performance exploring the experiences of female artists raises some interesting questions about gender, particularly given Paulikevitch’s androgynous onstage deportment and his focus on a style of dancing once commonly practiced by men but today seen as the exclusive domain of women.
“The idea of the piece was really very inspiring for me,” Paulikevitch explains. “I do a dance that is extremely feminine, which is baladi – traditional so-called oriental dance.
“So I have a bit of gender trouble, if you want, to spice it up a little bit ... All those women, even if they were under the spotlights, were also on the margins of society, and I’m an alternative artist, so I definitely felt a sort of recognition.”
Working with Khoury’s score is a new experience for a dancer used to moving to traditional music, but it’s one Paulikevitch says he relishes.
“It was challenging,” he admits, “but I love the piano, so for me to take this particular dance and to merge it and do some fusion work I think it’s important, because I haven’t seen it done ... I have this urge to push this dance to be looked at as a really very respected, serious and potentially highly emotional form of art, not only an erotic dance. [This is a way] to open new horizons.”
Unlike some of his other performances, in which Paulikevitch dresses in women’s clothing and assumes a female persona, even waxing his body hair, for this performance he says he wants to find a balance between his male body and feminine movement.
Although several of the women featured in the performance ultimately committed suicide, “Palais de Femmes” is intended to be uplifting.
“We don’t want the final message to be gloomy,” Khoury stresses. “On the contrary, we want it to say, ‘Everything is very difficult, but we are going to work.’”
“Palais de Femmes” takes place Oct. 2 and 3 at the French Institute’s Salle Montaigne. For more information or to reserve tickets, please call 03-812-959.
Copyright © 2021, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.